Riparian Zones ("Corridors," "Buffers")

What is a “Riparian Zone?”

“Riparian” refers to the area by the banks of a river, stream, or other body of water. A riparian zone is therefore a corridor or strip of land of a specified width along streams and waterways. For our CLEAR studies (see links below), we refer to these areas as riparian corridors or zones, but they are also frequently called riparian "buffers." However, this term should not be confused with the inland wetland and watercourse regulatory review zones administered by Connecticut towns, which are also often called "buffer zones."

Riparian zones with native vegetation and soils provide multiple functions and values. They are the first line of defense against the impacts of impervious surfaces (thus the frequent use of the term "buffer"!). Natural riparian areas slow runoff, protect shorelines from erosion, aid in flood control, and filter or trap pollutants. They also provide habitat and corridors for wildlife, as well as shade waters for fisheries enhancement. Additionally, intact riparian corridors may provide scenic value and recreational opportunities.

Riparian Zones and Climate Change

The climate changes described in the introduction section will impact riparian areas both through air/water temperature changes and changes in precipitation patterns and potentially through increases in nuisance or invasive species.

Reasons to have healthy riparian systems:

  • Riparian systems are naturally resilient to extreme weather events. These are areas that normally flood periodically, and flooding may become more frequent and/or intense in some areas.
  • Riverine habitats function as corridors for many animals. With climate change causing distributional shifts in some organisms, riparian areas may be critical corridors for species movements over time.
  • Expanding thermal refugia: because water has a high heat capacity, waters adjacent to riparian corridors can absorb heat and help protect organisms against extreme temperatures shifts.
  • Riparian corridors provide important hydrologic benefits. Riparian vegetation increases infiltration which becomes increasingly important for stormwater runoff during intense precipitation events.
  • Riparian corridors provide erosion control benefits. Vegetation and associated root systems play a critical role in preventing or decreasing the impacts of erosion during intense precipitation and flood events.

Riparian Studies

Statewide Riparian Corridors Analysis (Using 2006 Land Cover)

This part of CLEAR’s Connecticut’s Changing Landscape project looks at land cover and land cover change within riparian corridors of Connecticut. Riparian, or streamside, corridors are known to be environmentally important areas critical to stream stability, pollutant removal, and both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitat.

Coastal Riparian Buffers Analysis (Using 2002 land cover)

This project, conducted by CLEAR in 2005 and 2006 for the Long Island Sound Study (LISS) National Estuary Program, looked at land cover and land cover change within watersheds and riparian zones of coastal Connecticut (for the southern half of the state) using Connecticut’s Changing Landscape version 1 land cover data.

Riparian Resources

  • A Planting Guide for Riparian Sites Along the Connecticut Coast A publication containing information about coastal habitats, what buffers are, why they are important and how to construct your own riparian buffer.
  • Riparian Corridor Planting Guide A guide and list of trees, shrubs, ferns grass and other herbaceous plants that are appropriate for riparian areas.
  • Long Island Sound Riparian Toolbox The objective of this project is to assemble existing materials that will be of use to local officials in drafting and implementing regulations to protect riparian areas.
  • CT River Riparian Mapping 2006 Information about an investigation that attempts to pull together both existing GIS data and field observations in an initial effort to produce a regional tool that can guide further resource protection - through the conservation of riparian buffers - in the CT River estuary.